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Who Were the Puritans?

Updated on January 20, 2020
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Barry is the founder and dean of Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

King James I, warned his son Charles: “Take heed of these Puritans, the very pests (or plagues) of the Church and Commonwealth, whom no deserts can oblige, nor oaths, or promises bind; one that breathes nothing but sedition and calumnies. . .. He is a fanatic spirit; with whom you may find greater ingratitude, more lies, and viler perjuries, than amongst the most infamous thieves.”[1]

The stereotyped view of a puritan is a person who was gloomy, dark, sour, serious, and morbid. They are seen by many people to hate pleasure. They are portrayed as miserable people who want to deprive everyone else of their happiness. They are sometimes viewing as being unbalanced and unable to enjoy the good things which God has created. Those who have this view do not really know who the puritans were. The Puritans did value a sense of humor and expressions of joy. But they were also serious (we might use the term “grave”) when it came to spiritual matters. They saw life as a “warfare” on a spiritual level and were focused on eternal things.

The Puritans are viewed as legalists because of their strict approach to life. Technically, a “legalist” is someone who believes that they will be justified by works, which the Puritans did not. Many people develop their views of the Puritans from stories like “The Scarlet Letter” and the Salem witch hunts. This is not who the Puritans were.

The word “puritan” was applied to those who claimed to be seeking “purity in worship. The term was coined as a way to mock them by their enemies. William Perkins said it was a “vile term.” Why were they opposed by the Church of England? In short, they emphasized the centrality of preaching and prayer. Those who refused to conform to the Church of England were called Non-Conformists. Puritans were Protestants who were part of the Non-Conformist group. Strictly speaking, the Puritans were considered “separatists.” These were people who were not Roman Catholic but they also refused to submit to the Anglican church. Even this description does not do them justice.

Perhaps, John Spurr comes closest to defining the “essence of Puritanism.”

“It grows out of the individual’s conviction that they have been personally saved by God, elected to salvation by a merciful God for no merit of their own; and that, as a consequence of this election, they must lead a life of visible piety, must be a member of a church modeled on the pattern of the New Testament, and must work to make their community and nation a model Christian society.”[2]


The Puritans and the Anglican Church

Specifically, the Puritans rejected the ceremonies of the Anglican church:

(1) The use of the wedding ring, which was viewed by some people of the medieval age as a sacrament of marriage

(2) Kneeling to receive the Lord’s Supper. They believed that this communicates something special about bread, and encouraged views like transubstantiation

(3) The wearing of the surplice (priestly robe) that elevates the pastor over people

(4) The mark of the cross on the forehead before baptism. They said that this obscures the unique significance of water baptism.

5) Some also refused to use the forced liturgy of the Anglican church such as the Common Book of Prayer.

All these were rejected on the basis that they are not found in Scripture.

Prayer and Preaching

Puritans were known to be much in prayer. They prayed in the closet (privately), they prayed in the church, and in the home. They viewed the home as a mini-Church. This was an extension of their view of covenant theology. Given that the majority of puritans were paedobaptists (practicing infant baptism), they saw the church as the visible covenant community made up of regenerate and unregenerate members. It is natural to extend that view of “church” into the home as baptized children, though not regenerate, were part of the visible, covenant community. They used written prayers as well as extemporaneous prayers. When they prayed, even in private or while walking along the road, they prayed out loud.

They had a very high view of preaching. This is in contrast to the Anglican church who said that the reading of the Bible was often sufficient. They valued plain and simple preaching.[3] The reason they placed such a high emphasis on preaching is that they had a high view of Scripture. They took their view of the Bible directly from the Reformation by saying it was the sole rule and authority for the church and Christian living. They viewed the Bible as the perfect, literal word of God.

Some define Puritanism as a “spiritual movement.” The emphasis is on experiential Christianity. They said that theological knowledge was not enough. It must be practical. Unlike the Pietists, who saw little to no value in theology, the Puritans had high regard for theology but balanced that high view with the reality of life. They applied and lived out their theology.

Puritanism has also been identified as a “revival movement.”

“Spiritual revival was central to what the Puritans professed to be seeking.” J.I. Packer defines revival “as a work of God by his Spirit through his word bringing the spiritually dead to a living faith in Christ and renewing the inner life of Christians who have grown slack and sleepy.”[4]


Footnotes

[1] Anonymous, A Puritane Set Forth in His Lively Colours (London: n.p., 1642), pp. 2-3.

[2] Spurr, English Puritanism 1603-1689, p. 5.

[3] “Puritan Preaching” will be covered in greater detail in a future article.

[4] J.I. Packer, Quest for Godliness, pp. 36-37

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